All posts filed under: Review

The WEIRDest People in the World—A Review

A review of The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 704 pages (September, 2020). A decade ago, researcher and scholar Joseph Henrich, together with psychologists Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan, published a landmark paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences titled, “The weirdest people in the world?”1 No, the target of the label “weird” were not the Araweté horticulturalists of lowland South America, where mothers-to-be seek sex with multiple men in the belief that semen from multiple fathers is needed to form the fetus.2 Nor were they the Māori of New Zealand, who have been known to collect and preserve the heads of enemy chiefs they killed in battle as trophies of war, (the mokomokai.) The target of the weird label was Western people. More specifically, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or WEIRD. WEIRD was not meant as a pejorative, but as an apt description of this group of psychologically peculiar people, who are distinct from the majority of humanity both …

Police Violence and the Rush to Judgment

In the days and weeks following George Floyd’s death in May, activists flooded the streets with placards and slogans to denounce racism and police violence. But the zeal with which they mobilized support for their cause frequently clouded complex issues and events that demanded greater scrutiny than conviction and piety provide. For partisans on social media, hearsay and rumor became grist to ideological mills and facts were only relevant if they were politically useful. An inquisitorial climate developed in which everyone was expected to take a side without unseemly hesitation. Are you on the side of social justice or are you on the side of racial oppression? Silence on this question is violence, we were told. As a result, a rush to judgment is disfiguring how we consume and understand reports of events unfolding rapidly in confusing circumstances. The political biases of the loudest voices may be obvious and their manipulations may be crude, but doubt and restraint risk accusations of callousness and racism, which is often motivation enough to declare one’s allegiance before the …

The Myth of Harmonious Indigenous Conservationism

It seems like a long time ago. But only six months ago, pundits had convinced themselves that the great morality tale of our time was playing out in an obscure part of British Columbia. Following on an internal political fight within the Wet’suwet’en First Nation over a local pipeline project, one columnist wrote that “the Indigenous people of Earth have become the conscience of humanity. In this dire season, it is time to listen to them.” In fact, the elected leadership of the Wet’suwet’en had chosen to participate in the controverted pipeline project. The nationwide protests against the pipeline that followed were, in fact, sparked by unelected “hereditary” chiefs who long have received government signing bonuses. It’s unclear how this qualifies them for the exalted status of humanity’s conscience. Yet the whole weeks-long saga, which featured urban protestors appearing alongside their Indigenous counterparts at road and rail barricades throughout Canada, tapped into a strongly held noble-savage belief system within progressive circles. Various formulations of this mythology have become encoded in public land acknowledgments, college courses, …

‘Science Fictions’ Review: Begone, Science Swindlers

A review of Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth by Stuart Ritchie, Bodley Head, 353 pages (July, 2020). As I sat down to review Stuart Ritchie’s new book, Science Fictions, I was interrupted immediately by mournful texts from a young man who was being hosed for his write-up of the results from a study. He’d asked me to take a look at it. A charity wanted to improve literacy in poor children. Children’s literacy had been measured before and after a “treatment” or intervention. There was no “control group” in the design. No similar sample of children who trundled along without the intervention, nor an intervention designed to match the treatment in all but the supposed crucial component. Had literacy increased at the second assessment because of the treatment or because the children were a year older? Your guess is as good as mine. The young man fed this problem back to his superiors and was called, peremptorily, to an online meeting. The charity had wanted a glowing …

Twilight of Democracy—A Review

A review of Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, Doubleday (July 2020), 224 pages. Historian and journalist Anne Applebaum’s new book The Twilight of Democracy sees a democratic world, as Rupert Brooke saw his world at the onset of World War I, “grown old and cold and weary.” So weary of democracy’s institutions and processes, so coldly contemptuous of the liberals of the Left and Right who administered them, that many of those who previously supported these central pillars have instead embraced one or another form of right-wing fundamentalism. This may manifest as nostalgic yet virulent nationalism, or reactionary Catholicism, or an invocation of Great Leader-ism which is, she writes, “at once serious and unserious.” Illustrative of the last of these types, she says, is Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Spanish anti-immigrant party Vox, who was filmed riding a horse to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings—unserious, because plundering popular culture for the purposes of rousing self-glorification is so obviously crass; serious, because it is rousing, nonetheless. The title of Applebaum’s book communicates the seriousness …

The Room Where It Happened—A Review

A review of The Room Where It Happened—A White House Memoir by John Bolton, Simon and Schuster (June 2020), 592 pages. Donald Trump’s White House is fast approaching the end of its first term. Meanwhile, the consequences of the administration’s early insouciance about the onset of COVID-19 are manifest across a country experiencing a ferocious new surge in cases. The US President offers his leadership to those who would scrap the sheltering and distancing rules, characterising them as the imposition of a despised bureaucracy—evidence, as one protestor put it, of a “Communist dictatorship.” Trump is, in most moods, fond of Communist dictators, as China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un have been pleased to discover. The head of his National Security Council (NSC) from April 2018 until September last year, John Bolton, fears and hates them. These two men, both in their early 70s, were yoked together for 18 months, a period that ended in predictable acrimony, and which has now produced a memoir from Bolton. Several books have already sought to illuminate the malign …

Bad Vibrations: The Lies Universities Tell Their Students about Sex

Universities today bombard students with two contradictory messages about sex, effectively encouraging them to carry a dildo in their pocket, while lugging a fainting couch behind them. On the one hand, universities have returned to a quasi-Victorian concern with the unique fragility and vulnerability of college women in matters of sex. This belief in the frailty of college women flows from a lineage of feminist theory, whose foremost representative is probably Catherine MacKinnon, in which “structures of power” hold down women as inherently unequal partners in sex. These structures, the argument goes, must be reformed to correct historical wrongs, to reward and encourage the right sorts of individuals and activities, while punishing and suppressing the wrong ones. On the other side of the campus sex ledger is the dildo raffle. At “Sex Week” festivities and other gatherings nationwide, colleges and universities actively promote sexual libertinism. During Sex Weeks, campuses routinely host BDSM demonstrations, and rhapsodise over orgasms, anal sex, sex toys, and more. The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse hosted a teach-in entitled “Clitoral Masturbation and …

The Coming of Neo-Feudalism—A Review

Review of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class by Joel Kotkin, Encounter Books (May 2020) 288 pages. Writing books which make bold predictions about the future of the Western world can be risky, so I naturally approached Joel Kotkin’s The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class with caution. Could feudalism really be making a comeback in the West, as Kotkin argues? The answer might not be a straight “yes,” but Kotkin’s overall argument that deep currents of history and economics are pulling us towards a more stratified and ideologically orthodox society is persuasive. Particularly in light of recent events, as we shall see. Feudal societies were hierarchical, with clearly-defined roles and responsibilities for everyone. The knights fought for all, the priests prayed for all, and the peasants worked for all. Times of upheaval could force open the door to social mobility, but otherwise, people kept their station. These barriers were broken down by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the modern democratic state. …

Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class—A Review

A review of Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class by Charles Murray, Twelve (January 28th, 2020), 528 pages. Charles Murray believes in the values of Enlightenment: science and knowledge, truth and progress. Like the fictional character Lodovico Settembrini—a pro-Enlightenment Italian humanist in Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain—Murray believes that science provides the best method available to produce objective knowledge about ourselves and the world; that knowledge about ourselves and the world is important and good; that this knowledge will bring us closer to the truth about who we are and where we come from; and that this knowledge will foster human progress and lead to more prosperous, peaceful, fair, and egalitarian societies as well as greater health and happiness for their inhabitants. If, say, Montesquieu had visited the United States in the mid-late 20th century (as did his French countryman Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831), he might have thought of this country as the closest thing to an embodiment of his Enlightenment ideals. If he journeyed here again in 2020, …

A Rainy Day in New York—A Review

In spite of a fresh round of uninformed press attacks, celebrity denouncements, and calumnies catalysed by the #MeToo movement, Woody Allen has remained an irrepressible creative force. Amid the kind of controversy that might have destroyed any other artist’s sanity, he somehow managed to produce a memoir and two new films. Getting his work in front of an audience, however, has proved to be more difficult. The long-discredited allegation that Allen molested his adopted daughter Dylan when she was seven was most recently revived by Allen’s former partner Mia Farrow and their son Ronan during the 2014 Golden Globe ceremony at which Allen was being honored. Ronan Farrow is now an investigative journalist whose star rose rapidly during the #MeToo era as a result of his Pulitzer Prize-winning articles for the New Yorker about Harvey Weinstein, and he has not hesitated to use his newfound celebrity and moral authority to pursue a vendetta against his estranged father. It was he who led the public condemnations of Hachette in March for agreeing to publish Allen’s book, …